Elizabeth Alexander and a Freed Slave's Journey of a Lifetime

In this second excerpt from Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book Faces of America, The Root's editor-in-chief details the research into writer Elizabeth Alexander's slave ancestry -- outside the U.S.

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Elizabeth and I both wanted to know more about Edward's slave past. His baptismal record notes that he was a domestic servant and that he lived in Northampton. This was not a familiar place name to us, so our researchers began searching and found hand-drawn maps from the early nineteenth century of St. Elizabeth Parish. They showed that the parish contained something called "Northampton Pen." The word pen was the Jamaican term at that time for a cattle farm, and Northampton Pen was one of the largest pens in the country -- including a plantation house and an estate of over fifteen hundred acres. This is where Elizabeth's great-great-grandfather and most likely his parents were slaves.

The farm is a ruin today, just some walls, the bare remains of some kind of entrance gate, open fields crossed by a single road, and lots of goats. But in the first decades of the 1800s, it was a very significant operation, owned by an Englishman named John Chambers. Records show that in 1826 Chambers owned 299 slaves. That's a large number of slaves for Jamaica and is much larger than most plantations in the United States held, even at the height of slavery here. When Chambers died in 1832, the inventory of his estate listed all his slaves. On the list is a boy named Edward, age two and a half years, valued at forty pounds (which would be about forty-five hundred dollars today). Incredibly, this two-and-a-half-year-old boy is Elizabeth's great-great-grandfather.

"My God," said Elizabeth, looking at the record. "When you see in black and white what it is to be valued as property when you're a toddler -- I'm sorry, but that's hard to take."

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